Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Blowback, Pakistani Style

The prevailing Western narrative concerning the massive blast that destroyed the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad is that this 9/11 style outrage will shove some GWOT backbone up the ass of Pakistan’s elites and compel them to get serious about the extremists they’ve been coddling on Pakistan’s western border with Afghanistan.

Much of the anger and concern are genuine and understandable. However, I also detect a note of determined special pleading, particularly by American security analysts, in the efforts to downplay the significance of a destabilizing factor in Pakistani security that is tacitly acknowledged but determinedly ignored by almost everybody pushing the current military program in Afghanistan and western Pakistan—the profound unpopularity of the US-led military effort in South Asia.

The Marriott blast is, in some ways, an opportunity to turn the focus away from some awkward facts: that Pakistan’s best days in Afghanistan were during the Taliban era, and Pakistan has no real interest in helping NATO establish a viable, pro-US regime in Kabul; that there is a distinct lack of urgency in Pakistan’s desire to bring al-Qaeda and Osama bin-Laden to justice; and there is widespread detestation of the US policy of military confrontation against the Pakistani Taliban in pursuit of NATO’s pro-Karzai, anti-al-Qaeda objectives.

And there is widespread dismay, fear, and anger inside Pakistan that NATO’s recent escalation to unilateral incursions inside Pakistan in order to rescue its tottering project in Kabul has provoked the borderland extremists to attack the encirclement campaign against it by assaulting its weakest link—the Pakistani political will to endure a campaign of urban terror for the sake of Western GWOT objectives in Afghanistan.

Packaging the Marriott blast as the impetus for a sea change in Pakistani attitudes gives the West the chance to avoid mentioning the elephant in the room: the fact that most knowledgeable observers characterize the attack as calculated blowback inside the Pakistani heartland in retaliation for US-led efforts to carry the war against the Taliban and al-Qaeda in the remote border areas.

As one prescient blogger wrote back in August (full disclosure: it was me):

As Western forces surge into Afghanistan in an effort to defeat the burgeoning Taliban insurgency by assaulting its havens in Pakistan, expect the Pakistani Taliban to retaliate—against Pakistan, in the Pakistani heartland—in order to demonstrate to Pakistani opinion the unacceptably high costs of providing material support to an unpopular American strategy.

In the lede for his September 23 front page article, Analysts fear Pakistan could fall to extremists, for the LA Times, Henry Chu chose to adopt the conventional framing:

…the devastating truck bombing of the Marriott Hotel over the weekend has presented government and military leaders here with a stark choice: Go all out against the extremists or risk the nation’s collapse into chaos.

He also quotes from an editorial in Pakistan’s The News which provides the kind of “it’s us vs. them” framing that American foreign policy experts must have found quite heartening:

“It is time we accepted this war is our own…There must be a consensus across society about the need to act with unity and determination to save what still remains or our wounded country.”

However, beneath these brave words, the traditional equivocation concerning the wisdom of Pakistan’s alignment with the US in the GWOT still persists.

The very editorial quoted by Chu goes on to say:

The opinions we still hear everywhere, in roadside cafes, in offices - and among the country’s establishment - that the militants who have entrenched themselves in northern areas are ‘good’ people, that force should not be used against them - is one reason why we today face such high levels of peril. Pakistan is now rated as the most dangerous place in the world. All those who have seen the charred graveyard of vehicles, of trees torn apart, of ash covering green belts, of people writhing in hospital beds, will not disagree with this assessment. Yet the fact that so many still believe the forces capable of the mayhem we saw in Islamabad on Saturday deserve some kind of protection, that they deserve to be regarded as men of honour with whom dialogue is possible, explains why they have so far proved invincible. Such thinking needs to change.

The News itself is aggressively pursuing a story of a mysterious delivery of steel cases of equipment guarded by US Marines and exempted from security screening to the Marriott a few days before the blast, along with the allegations that the CIA had taken over a block of rooms on the fourth floor long term to use as espionage bases. It also reports:

A hotel employee, on condition of not being named, confided that the hotel management had been receiving threats from unknown persons for the last six months to get the US officials vacated from the hotel.

So there’s an alternative narrative that places the Marriott outrage comfortably within the category of “Pakistani security as collateral damage in the struggle between Islamic radicals and the United States over Afghanistan.”

In this context, it is interesting to consider the views of Nawaz Sharif.

Sharif is best known in the West as the prime minister of Pakistan who was deposed by Musharraf.

In fact, he is the leader of Pakistan’s premier opposition party, the PML-N, which recently abandoned the coalition with the ruling PPP; his party runs Punjab, Pakistan’s prosperous heartland and economic and electoral powerhouse.

Sharif cuts an imposing political figure, is the most well-regarded politician in Pakistan by a considerable margin, and stands a very good chance of coming out on top in the next parliamentary elections and heading the national government as prime minister.

Sharif has positioned his party as the voice of the urban Pakistan bourgeoisie and the champion of civil society, and sedulously courts and heeds public opinion.

His stature and political grasp make him a formidable rival to President Asif Zardari, the one-time grifter and professional spouse who is now America’s equivocal GWOT ally and client of the moment in Pakistan.

Sharif is also a firm and consistent of US-led GWOT operations on and inside Pakistan’s western borders, and that hasn’t changed since the Marriott blast.

And that’s probably why, despite Sharif’s position at the center of Pakistani political life and opinion, you don’t hear very much about him in the Western press.

Courtesy of the Babelfish meat grinder with edits for clarity, here is the gist of an interview Sharif gave the Italian newspaper La Republica (original Italian here; h/t to the Irish Times for being the only English-language outlet to pick up his remarks):

Who is behind the attack on the Marriott? “Someone coming from the tribal areas, perhaps from the zones in which the military operations they have caused many victims. The attack has all the air of a vendetta”.

One refers to the Taliban or Al Qaeda? “We attribute always every responsibility to the Taliban or Al Qaeda: this but is the point of view of the United States. For we the things are various. We know that in the tribal areas there are those who are neither Taliban nor men of Al Qaeda. There are religious persons much, this yes. But creed cannot be only spoken about Taliban or Al Qaeda”.

… “We would have to distinguish between terrorists and members of the tribes. I do not tolerate the use of the army against our people. We must find a negotiated solution.

Will the Taliban will continue to counterattack? “That features of Taliban or the pertaining relatives to the several tribes remained killed in the tribal areas, will sure be continued to counterattack till when the government does not stop the extermination. Those persons come killed like animals: the tribal areas are being transformed in real butcher shops

What thinks some about an eventual participation of the United States in the tribal areas of Pakistan? “We refuse any participation categorically American. The United States must attend to the facts they and to leave us to make what we must make. The USA would have to stop to acting in the role of international policeman”.

He refutes therefore that Pakistan will become " Talibanized"? “The majority of the Pakistani population is moderate and it does not have some propensity for extremism. Pakistan will not never become an extremist State”.

How would he advise the government? “The government must place immediately end any military participation in the tribal areas…The issue will not be able to be resolved with the force. I condemn the attack on the Marriott, but to condemn is not sufficient to straighten the things. We must resist the pressures of the United States and think with our own heads”.

A couple comments:

First, it is remarkable that a politician of Sharif’s stature and savvy would, in the aftermath of a major terrorist attack, eschew the blood and guts rhetoric for talk of political dialogue. It’s a sign that of the significant and perhaps decisive character of the popular and political forces willing to accept accommodation with the tribal areas.

Second, contra the apocalyptic prose of the LA Times, the main concern of the Pakistani elite is not that tribal extremists from a thinly populated hinterland will take over Pakistan, an urbanized, populous, and industrialized country of 120 million people. The main concern is that the democratic institutions haltingly restored in the post-Musharraf era will be swept aside by violent unrest and a return to military rule if Pakistan is forced to bow to the United States’ demand for an all or nothing military solution in Afghanistan and western Pakistan.

If there is an impulse for a change of course in Pakistan after this devastating instance of urban terrorism, it involves a third way: not signing on to the US-led military campaign, and abandoning a not-too-effective cycle of half-hearted confrontation and hasty conciliation, with one eye on the hefty US GWOT financial subvention and another on civil peace, with something more determined and effective.

In fact, when one reads the Pakistani commentary, one sees indications of an approach that tries to thread the needle between an aggressive anti-extremist security policy and an urgent need to decouple from US GWOT activities in Afghanistan and western Pakistan and give Islamabad the breathing space to use economic and political as well as military methods to isolate and marginalize the militants in its western borderlands.

In the worst case, this won’t involve whole-hearted support of US-led incursions into the Pakistani borderlands; it will involve Pakistan’s insistence that the aggravating fact of the US presence has turned a low-level political dispute into an existential crisis for Pakistan’s civilian government and society, and the demand that the survival of the Pakistan nation take precedence over the survival of America’s unpopular project in Afghanistan—the Karzai regime.